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Thursday 13 October 2011

Where the chips fall - platform dominator for 2012

It's been about a year since I put my prognosis skills on the line and tried to predict where technology and consumer products are heading. Since today is National Fail Day in Finland, perhaps it's time to try again. Lets see how right or wrong I end up being.

Last year I noted a couple of things about mobile platforms and of the software environments best suited for creating apps on them. While this year has seen a lot of development on those fronts, little of it has been in surprising directions. HTML5 is coming, but not here yet. If WebGL and Intel's River Trail project were supported by the Big Three (IE, Firefox and WebKit, ie Safari/Chrome), that'd make an amazing game platform - but at least the latter is research-only at this point, and IE9 isn't going to support either. In the meantime, Adobe finished Flash 11, which now has hardware-accelerated 3D in addition to a pretty good software runtime, and, after only 10 days out, already has 42% reach for consumer browsers (at least judging by stats on habbo.com). Like I've said a long time, Flash gets a lot of undeserved crap due to the adware content created on it. We won't get rid of that by changing tech, and platforms should be judged by their capabilities in the hands of good developers, not by mediocrity. And, as far as mobile goes, the trend continues -- iPhone and Android battle it out, now also in courts as well as in consumer markets, while everything else falls under the wagon. If you're creating an app -- do it either with a cross-platform native toolchain, or with HTML5. If you're doing a game, do it with Unity or Flash, and build a native app out of it for mobile.

The interesting thing, to me, is playing out on the Internet. Google+ came out as a very nice product with well-balanced feature set, but (fairly predicably, though I was rooting for it) failed to catch the early adopter fancy for long enough to displace Facebook in any niche. Facebook, on the other hand, scared (or is going to scare) 40% of their audience by announcing Timeline (eek, privacy invasion!). Brilliant move -- you can't succeed today without taking such leaps that nearly half of your audience will be opposed to them, at least initially. Smaller changes simply aren't meaningful enough.

So, I'm betting on Facebook. I'd also guess that once they get Facebook Credits working outside of the Canvas, they're going to demand that any app using Facebook Connect log-ins will accept Credits for payment. I'd hazard a guess they're even going to demand FB Credits exclusivity. They'll fail the latter demand, but that won't stop them from trying it. Having your app's/game's social publishing automatically done by Facebook simply by feeding them events, and not having to think about which ones are useful to publish, is just such a big time saver for a developer, no one will want to miss out on it.

Not even Zynga. They're doing this destination-site, we're-not-gonna-play-inside-Facebook-anymore strategy, but continue to use Facebook Connect for log-ins. That's not because FB Connect is so much more convenient than own username and password (though it is), but because even they can't afford to let go of the "free" access to people's social network. That's the power of Timeline and the new, extended Graph API.

The chips are still in the air. When they fall, I think Facebook will be stronger than ever, but strong enough to displace the "rest of the Internet"? No. As a developer, I want to push Facebook the data for in-game activities, because that saves me time doing the same thing myself. As a publisher, I'm unsure I want Facebook to have all that info, exploiting them for their purposes, risking my own ability to run a business. As a consumer, it makes me uneasy that they have all that info about me, and while I can access and control quite a lot of it, I can't know what they're using it for. I don't think that unease will be enough to stop me or most other consumers from feeding them even more data of our lives, likes and activities. Still, they're only successful doing this as long as they don't try to become a gatekeeper to the net - nor do they need to do that, since they get the data they want without exerting control over my behavior. Trying to fight against that trend is going to be a losing strategy for most of us - possibly even for Google. Apple and Microsoft won't need to fight it, because they're happy enough, for now at least, to simply work with Facebook.

Sunday 28 November 2010

Notes on Samsung Galaxy Tab

Last week, I noticed Amazon UK had a pretty decent price on the Samsung Galaxy Tab, which I had already set my eyes on earlier - so order it I did. It's been a mixed bag of experiences over the week. I was hoping for a bit smoother ride. Now, to begin with, I'm a very satisfied Android user since getting a Nexus One last March - having gone through the experience of both Android 2.1 and 2.2, I'm eagerly awaiting 2.3 release. I've also been impressed by the Galaxy S phone, which I have not used as a primary device, but have played around with for a few days. I knew what I was getting into - having used a Nokia 770 back in 2006 and tried the iPad enough times to know Apple's limitations still don't jive with me, I knew the Tab would not be perfect, but it'd probably be useful. Also, I wanted something that would let me avoid carrying the laptop around quite so much.

The good

I like the form factor of the Galaxy Tab a lot. Never mind what Steve Jobs says, I think 7" is a brilliant compromise. It's big enough to work for an Internet terminal, just big enough to have a usable two-finger keyboard, and yet small enough to fit to a pocket. Not any pocket, mind you - but most mens' jacket pockets will do.

The doubtful

What's up with that dock connector? Galaxy S has a perfectly working micro-USB connector, and Tab would have been much better with one, as well. Sure, maybe they felt the 2W charging power requirement and micro-USB would not have fit together that nicely, but I'm sure there would have been better solutions. Also, while I don't really see the need for HDMI connectors on phones (the N8 micro-HDMI for instance feels more of a gimmick than something truly useful), on the Tab I miss it.

The build quality is good, but not great. Unlike the Galaxy phone, for example, there is a clear seam between the front face and the rest of the case. This sort of thing wouldn't even have been noticeable just a few years ago, but now it stands out.

Finally, I knew that the device is more "a phone" than might be expected from the form factor, due to Android 2.2 having been developed for smaller devices, but the amount of places the phone capabilities show up in is rather amusing, given it makes calls only with a hands-free attached. For example - why is there a call button in the web browser besides the URL bar?

The downright ugly

Update 3 weeks later: I took the hacker route (again!) and downloaded an alternative firmware to the device. Certainly not a task for the faint of heart, but after three failed attempts, it booted. Many of my previous issues are solved or at least greatly mitigated -- but my "this is not a consumer-friendly experience" assessment stands... Original critique continues below.

Given how much money Samsung has thrown into marketing this device, with every streetside filled with ads, it's nothing short of amazing how bad the packaging is. I don't mean the box - that was nice enough, but what appears on the device once you turn it on. Mine has the UK customizations, and other markets will probably see something slightly different, but... 1. a task manager widget that you'd expect on a developer prototype, but not in a final consumer version, 2. video examples consisting of trailers for last years' movies in low resolution and broken aspect ratios! I mean, The Dark Knight was a great movie, and I plan to watch it again, but I didn't need a YouTube clip to remind me!

That's all fixable by some customization. A consumer shouldn't have to, and it sets a horrible first impression, so I'm not surprised the device isn't quite selling as expected, but I was going to throw that crap away anyways. No, what really bugs me is that the thing is sluggish. It has a 50% faster CPU and twice the memory of an iPad, and at times that really shows in great performance, and then, out of the blue, it decides to wait 2 seconds before responding to anything, or show a blank browser window for 15 seconds when I try to load a simple news article. And no, it's not due to Flash - I disabled automatic Flash startup (equivalent to AdBlock, a standard feature in the Android browser).

Samsung has made quite a few tweaks to Android's UI to fit it better to the 7" screen. They've stayed admirably close to the already-good Android baseline (unlike some other manufacturers), and most of the UI changes are quite OK, but at the same time, it looks like they've bitten off a bit more than they can chew in terms of software development, and the amount of bugs affecting the usability is pretty high. I hope they'll be able to deliver 2.3 soon.

Speaking of 2.3, my Nexus One received 4 over the air software updates over the last week. It's still Android 2.2.1 build FRG83D though, and the only thing I've noticed has been the last letter of that build number changing). I wonder what's up with Gingerbread -- with this winter weather in Helsinki, I might grow tired of glög and gingerbread pretty soon :)

Wednesday 21 January 2009

How LinkedIn's special keyword Google AdSense works

Have you noticed how Google AdWords shows you directly targeted advertising on LinkedIn? Something that goes far beyond AdWord's normal capabilities of targeting. For example, I always see recruitment ads for a local Java consultancy house known for their agile process expertise, no matter what I'm doing on LinkedIn. It certainly doesn't have anything to do with the page the ads are on, nor is it related to search keywords. As a proof, take the case of searching for a farming expert in Nepal: I'm still seeing ads for that consultancy, Scrum process management tools, and SOA testing. If there's a connection to my activities, I'm at loss what it is.

However, I know exactly what they ARE targeting. My own profile, which mentions all those things, and more. LinkedIn and Google are not advertising to my stated intent (what I'm searching for), or the page content (as an AdSense customer might expect), but myself and what I've told the service about me.

Continue reading...

Sunday 28 December 2008

A year-end review

2008 is nearly over, and it's time to take a look at what happened over the year, as well as to take a peek at the the coming 2009. A year ago I made a guess that social networking services would open up and start sharing their profiles – well, practically everyone but Facebook are doing some of that, and Facebook is trying to get everyone to depend on them – not that “create dependency” isn't a part of Google's and MySpace's plan, too. Unfortunately, we haven't yet found a meaningful way for Habbo to participate in this festival, due to differences in demographies, interest areas, and the priority of running a profitable business, instead. Still looking for that solution, though.

I also guessed that productivity applications would seriously move to the cloud – and was a bit too optimistic on that one. Sure, the applications are there, but I don't really see any of them having replaced the desktop-based counterparts – nor do I see that happening next year, either. People are, rightly so, focused somewhere else, and while over the long run moving off to the cloud will make sense from both productivity and cost standpoint, it's still too much of a jump, and too expensive to make.

The increasing popularity of netbooks, Internet access via 3G networks, etc, will have an impact on that, though. Perhaps we'll all move out to the net in a completely different way: not via our old productivity apps, but via entirely new class of applications. Something else than Facebook and Twitter though, I hope.

What else? MySQL was acquired by Sun, and we're all still waiting for the next step. The Register (I can't believe I keep reading it) has somehow gotten the impression that Sun has slowed MySQL down – nah, it's been this slow for at least three times that long. Fortunately, the acquisition may have been a catalyst for the MySQL developer community to start doing something else instead of waiting, and I'm really looking forward to the improvements Percona and Drizzle are making to keep MySQL competitive. As for Sun – time to stop confusing a good thing with dubious business models and bad release engineering before you lose all your customers, I'd say. At the same time, I'm also super-interested in the stuff Sun is doing on the hardware side of database storage with SSD-optimized solutions. Can't say I paid much attention to Sun there for a while, but they're making what seems like an unlikely comeback.

For Habbo, we've continued making progress on the track chosen late 2007 – revolutionary changes made incrementally. Biggest one this year, the free second currency of Pixels, was just launched a month ago. Several improvements are coming up for that, of course, and a whole lot of other stuff is in the works, or at least being thought of. We're trying not to hold anything longer than it absolutely needs to, so everything radically new continues to be launched sort-of unfinished and get improved along the way. It just ends up being so much better that way, as the feedback makes a significant contribution to the overall design.

This a weird time. The world is reeling from what indeed may be the worst economic crisis in 75 years (though I'm not well versed enough in history to be able to tell myself), and still (or because of it?), opportunities lie all around, ignored by most. It's never easy to tell which direction is most promising, but now I'm finding it incredibly hard to choose and prioritize between the possible things to focus on. Still, 2009 is definitely going to be a year to really focus on even fewer things than usual, and really kick ass on those.

If you made it this far, thanks for reading. I wish you a great year 2009, whatever it is you're doing.

Thursday 20 November 2008

High-profile shutdowns and low-profile major updates...

Quite a day for negative articles on Google. I counted 10 articles on Lively shutting down, with the usual suspects gloating and cheering from the sidelines. Won't be joining that crowd, it's never fun to see someone's work being thrown out the window. I did want to relate that to a bigger picture, though.

This certainly won't be the last shutdown among the 100+ virtual worlds projects under work right now, and I wouldn't be surprised at all to see even higher-profile projects being canceled, either in the current financial bloodbath which curely will kill even some companies which 6 months earlier were entirely viable operations, or in the year to come when the business fails to materialize. Money's still being thrown in to the game at pretty amazing rate, and there's just not enough experience to go around to make all these projects work.

And that's because at the end of the day, this business is not about the brand, the IP, the coolest technology, or even the best user experience. Instead, this is about being able to nurture a community, co-operate with it to develop something which no one knows where it will ultimately end up at, and to be on the pulse of what's going on, every minute of every day. I know it's easy to forget that, with the allure of focusing on the superficial, easy to analyze product features, APIs, and so on.

We've certainly learned that the hard way ourselves - it's not like we've always kept our eye on the ball either. Still, you only need to be right most of the time, listen carefully, and not miss where you need to correct yourself. It's now been roughly a year since we launched a significant refresh to Habbo that put the service on the track its been on since, after what can be described only as a pretty horrible summer 2007 for us.

That was 12 months and 11 upgrades ago, though. Yesterday we launched what's internally called release 28 of Habbo in UK. The most exciting features of it haven't yet been turned on, as we're preparing yet another global roll-out to begin next week. This is an important release to us, possibly as important as the one made a year ago, as it'll change the economic and reward models of the community forever. I hope we got it right on this one. If we did, it's going to be an amazing Xmas, for us and for all the Habbos. If not, well, then we'll need to scramble a bit to make it fun anyhow. But that's what we're good at.

Wednesday 9 July 2008

Virtual worlds looked lively today

This turned out to be quite a day for virtual worlds' publicity, with both Google's Lively and Vivaty Scenes launching (congrats to both), and Second Life annoucing an interop with OpenSim together with IBM. All of that is great, and validates the concept of web-based, interoperable virtual worlds supporting and interacting with other web content (and vice versa), and supports our own thoughts nicely. There's plenty of room here for more players! I'd love to write more on this, but with my last work week before summer vacations keeping me quite busy right now, I'm afraid I don't have the energy to put my thoughts down to a publishable shape. Perhaps later, though. I'm sure I will have a lot of interesting discussion about the whole scene in GCDC next month, as well. Look me up if you're reading this and plan to be there!

(oh yeah, sorry about the horrible pun in the title)